“I Used To Sing But Not Any More” - Manipur Sea Of Desolation
Officially, the number of displaced people in Manipur is close to 50,000
If one would step at the Imphal Airport now, they would only catch a glimpse of the conflict that has engulfed Manipur. The northeastern state of India has been facing a clash between the Tribal groups mainly between the majority Meitei community, and the Kuki, Zomi, and Hmar communities.
At the airport, the Manipur Police will ask the purpose of your visit as a form of regular protocol and security. Due to the blockade, members of the Kuki, Zomi, Hmar and any other tribal community cannot access the airport.
Before the conflict getting an inner permit was necessary to move around in Manipur, however as the Tribal communities are no longer using the airport, it only applies to some.
It is then one recognises how deep the conflict is. On the journey from Imphal to Churachandpur, the place where most of the violence took place, phases of change were visible as views of destruction are still visible.
The only mode of transportation for non-Manipuris to travel from Imphal to Churachandpur and beyond to the hill districts, is with the Muslim taxi drivers, who have access.
Even though the situation is dire for them as well, they still need to earn a living as Manipur witnesses an economic crisis. Speaking to The Citizen, Hamid said that it is not safe for them either, but they are still in a better position when it comes to taking passengers around. “This has become our only mode of income as no Meiteis or Kuki-zo can cross the buffer zone,” he said.
Buffer zones or hotspots, divide the Kuki-majority Churachandpur from the Meitei-dominated Imphal side. There are at least 10 check-points manned by the Indian Army, Assam Rifles, BSF and the CRPF.
On each side of the buffer zone are the remains of what once used to be houses of Meitei and Kukis. “On the left side was a Meitei village and on the right-side a Kuki village. With the houses gone or abandoned the security forces on duty are using it now,” Hamid said.
After crossing multiple checkpoints and barricades, one finally reaches the border of Churachandpur, which marks the entrance to the Tribal villages. At the border just a few kilometres away from the buffer zone, sit a group of women guarding the area.
The border where Kuki volunteers guard the border as one enters Lamka. Photo: Nikita Jain
It is the Kuki, Zomi and Hmar women who take turns to guard the area. These women are volunteers who take out time from their schedules to do various kinds of work. “This time, tribal women have come out in numbers to guard the posts. This is unusual and even though in previous wars tribal women have come out, the current situation demands more hands-on deck and we can see the number going higher,” Mary Beth, a social activist based in Lamka told The Citizen.
The Citizen then visited a relief camp located a few kilometres away from the border. Officially Churachandpur, the tribals have started calling their town Lamka.
There are relief camps at every corner as many people have been left displaced due to the conflict. One of the relief camps that The Citizen visited was a half-constructed building with only cement work done.
People had built ‘tents’ to stop the winds from entering the small unfinished rooms which were open from all sides. Located amidst the paddy fields, the displaced people belonged from the Salam Patong village.
The relief camp where more than 100 people are living in Lamka. Photo: Nikita Jain
On May 3 and 4 2023, when violence had engulfed the valley, this village was widely affected with a mob burning down their houses. The people here belong to the Vaiphei community that comes from the Chin-Kuki-Mizo group. Hundreds of people were forced to run from their homes as the mob burnt down their houses.
Speaking to The Citizen, Lulun Spaoneillum, 60, who works at a government school back in his village, narrated what had happened to them.
“A mob of about 100 people came to the village on the evening of May 3. Me and my family saw those people burning houses. We somehow managed to leave our homes and run away. Just nearby was a Naga posting where we stayed the night there,” he said, still affected by the night.
Spaoneillum has 11 family members and taking them to safety was the priority. He said that even though the mob did not beat them up they were very hostile. Now, living without income in a makeshift tent, the old man is barely surviving. “There are some NGOs who are helping us here and there but besides that we have no way of going back home,” he said.
On May 3, a peaceful rally (tribal solidarity march) was organised by All Tribal Students Union Manipur in Churachandpur, after the Manipur High Court ordered the Manipur government to consider Meitei community's inclusion in the ST list.
Just as the protest was ongoing, in Imphal, which is nearly 63 kilometres away from Churachandpur, violence broke out.
In the relief camp, one room hosts at least four families, which comes close to 10 people or more per room. There were 24 families, a total of nearly 130 people, living in that small building.
Sitting under the sun as the temperature rose to 15 degrees making it a comfortable day, two young women are talking amongst themselves. On being approached they said they are not educated enough to speak in English. Kim, 30, is displaced and living with her family in the half-constructed building.
Kim, who is holding her one-year-old boy in her hand, said that they had to run away to save their lives. While both the women are housewives, the husbands used to work as daily wage labourers. That was their only mode of income.
The women also belong to the Salam Pong village. “We just saw houses being burnt and so we picked up our children and ran away for hours. While we somehow managed to run away, we knew some people who were killed,” Hoi recalled.
While the philanthropic organisations are trying to help the families, with no jobs and the situation still in crumbles the displaced people have no choice but to wait. However, one thing is clear, they said, they will never be able to go back home. “We thought it would die down in a few days but we are still here,” Spaoneillum added.
The shops are hardly running, although there is a hustle bustle on many days. On Wednesday, there is a complete shutdown as a way to protest and demand justice for the Kuki-Zo community.
According to Indigenous Tribal Leaders’ Forum (ITLF), a conglomerate of recognised tribes in Lamka, 160 people from Kuki-Zo have died during the start of violence. According to government official records, 200 people died in total. The number is expected to be higher.
One enters Lamka where at first glance, everything seems normal as the morning sun brings respite from the harsh winters. People can be seen enjoying the sun.
But the remains of those harsh days can be seen, as each corner has a story to tell. Outside Pastor Sekhohao Kipgen’s house people sit around two women. his wife Nengja Hoi, 30 and her mother-in-law Nemnei Kipgen, 56 are outside their home as people keep coming and going.
Sekhohao Kipgen, 35 was killed, reportedly by a mob, on May 3 when he had gone just outside the village with a group of men when they heard that a mob was trying to enter the village.
Hoi along with her children and mother-in-law had left their house as they had sensed tension, while Kipgen stayed back. “We were not aware of anything but then his videos started going around on social media and that is when I came to know that he was killed,” Hoi said as a tear fell down her cheek.
The pastor, who was well respected, and was deemed to be soft spoken, has left behind three children aged 3, 4 and 1.5 months. The incident has left a major mark on the family as Kipgen was the only earning member in the family. Nemnei said that Sekhohao was the eldest of the six children.
“He was so responsible and soft spoken you can ask anyone from here. The loss is so unbearable for us because I know all this could have been stopped,” she said, trying to hold back tears.
There is a lot of resentment and anger and fear amongst the ordinary people, regardless of the community they belong to. “There is nothing normal in Manipur, contrary to what anyone says,” she said.
While the death of her eldest son has left Nemnei and her family broken, she says no form of compensation has been provided to the family. Christian groups in the village are helping the family. “We do not expect any kind of justice,” Nemnei added.
Just a few kilometres away from Hoi’s house is another relief camp near Khuga Dam, a lifeline for the Lamka town. At every corner from Imphal to Churachandpur there are relief camps.
It was recently that a mass burial graveyard was dug on top of the Khuga Dam, where bodies of the Kuki-Zo who lost their lives in the violence were finally laid to rest after eight months of staying at a morgue.
The site located on a huge ground sees throngs of people from all over the hills, where they give their last respects. Graves of young men, old women and even children, overlook a blue sky and a stream just below.
The mass graveyard in Lamka. Photo: Nikita Jain
“So much was lost and it has taken us back by 20 years. Even if everything is settled nothing is going to be normal. From normalcy, to the effect on the economy, Manipur has gone back decades,” Samuel, a resident of Lamka said.
Due to the violence many people lost their lives or incurred huge health losses as there was no way for them to have access to Imphal hospital. With the situation still dire and Imphal completely cut off for the Tribals, medical access has become an issue with the hospitals in Lamka overburdened and understaffed.
In a relief camp located in Lamka’s Saipum, 23-year-old Lamshan Thang sits with his mother. The community hall in the village has been turned into a relief camp for the displaced people who had to run away leaving all their lives behind.
A relief camp in Lamka’s Saipum. Photo: Nikita Jain
Thang, who is diabetic, lost his eyesight as he did not get his medicines on time, said his mother Ting Hoikvak, 54. She added that after getting displaced they do not have enough money to visit doctors in Lamka town for treatment.
“Due to the delay in treatment my son who was partially blind, lost all sense of sight. He can not function without me anymore,” she told The Citizen. Sitting in a small space that they have created with bedsheets inside the community centre.
She also said that medicines are expensive and while the NGOs provided them with a stock in the initial months, due to the cost it has become to procure them now. “He also needs diapers now as he cannot see anything, but life has become only difficult,” she said.
Thang, who loves to sing, is sitting quietly and answering questions in his soft voice. “I used to sing, but not anymore,” he said. He softly tells his mother that he is feeling cold, and she gets up to get him a jacket.
Thang’s village and home was burnt by the mob, leaving them helpless. All of Hoikvak’s time goes into taking care of her son and trying to figure out how to get his medicines.
Lamka is being administered by the local leaders who are taking care of displaced people and are also trying to discuss the situation with the Biren Singh government but to no avail.
There are 12 different tribes in Manipur, all of whom are located in the hills. The tribal population that lives in Imphal has been displaced and is more than 41,000 people according to ITLF. Meanwhile, close to 20,000 Meiteis have been displaced. Officially, the number of displaced people in Manipur is close to 60,000.
Six-month-old Mang (name changed on request) lost his mother two days after he was born. Mang was born in July and was already displaced along with his family. Now, he lives with his 27-year-old father and his grandparents. “Lamchoing [Mang’s mother] gave birth in July but lost a lot of blood. We were already displaced and there was nowhere to go as we had no money or no mode of commuting,” Mang’s 45-year-old grandmother Luneng recalled.
She said that their house was burnt by a mob, the news of which they received after getting displaced. Heavily pregnant, the stress of violence affected 23-year-old Lamchoing. “We were running around and when this happened, she was in stress. This violence made us lose the mother of our grandchild,” she said with tears in her eyes.
“We have no expectations. We have lost everything,” Luneng added. The family now lives in a church compound turned into a relief camp.
In the morning while the town is once again thriving by evening there is an eerie silence in Lamka. The remains of Meitei homes that have been turned to rubble can be seen as one moves from the old market area.
However, people are trying to move on with their lives, as schools have slowly started opening up. Each morning children can be seen with school bags and laughter from classrooms can also be seen.
“This is how we can resist. I feel bad for children who are not able to get education who are displaced but we are trying to go to these relief camps and teach whenever we can,” Kim, who is an assistant teacher at a private school in Lamka, told The Citizen.
The remains of Meitei houses near the Buffer zone in Churachandpur. Photo: Nikita Jain